Sarutobi Sasuke - The ninja legend

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You may have heard that name before, Sarutobi Sasuke [猿飛佐助]. Many believe that he really existed, and many of his achievements in books were real. Others claim that it is just a fiction based on another ninja from Meiji era, called Kozuki Sasuke.

Even with this dilemma, Sarutobi Sasuke is an important character in Japanese folklore. So much so that in many manga, novels, animes, books, games his name is quoted or his character is portrayed in some way. So in this article we will tell the feats of this ninja and unravel a little more of his fascinating history.

The origin and end of sasuke

The name “Sarutobi” means "flying Monkey", and as is already known to the majority, many of the Japanese names actually describe the qualities or virtues that someone has. As such, Sarutobi Sasuke was famous for his agility, speed and acrobatic skills, compared to that of a monkey. He could dodge the warrior faster, dodging and jumping, even running away from sword blows. Many reports portray him as an orphan boy who was raised by a group of monkeys.

According to legend, Sasuke was born and raised on the shinano mountain shores [信濃], where Nagano Prefecture is currently located. Sasuke since childhood was always playing in the mountains and forests with monkeys. One day he met a mysterious man named Koga [甲賀]. Koga taught the young man the secrets of ninjutsu, in addition to fighting with swords.

After years of training, Sasuke joined a clan led by a courageous military commander named Sanada Yukimura [真田幸村]. This commander organized the “Sanada-Juyushi [真田十勇士], a group formed by 10 legendary ninjas, and Sasuke was part of it. One of the most famous battles of this group was the summer battle, at Osaka castle, in the final phase of the Sengoku period in 1615. Even though the final result was not favorable, Sasuke together with his group, were an essential element for Sanada's strategy Yukimura, while spying and bringing valuable information to their master.

One story even tells that, in one of those espionage missions in the castle, Sasuke made an exceptional entrance, and managed to hear the plans that his enemies were making. But when he left, the guards caught him. But due to his evasion skills and tactics, he got rid of the guards and easily jumped over the high castle wall.

Some say that after this escape, Sasuke fell into a bear trap. Seeing himself trapped there and afraid of being caught by the castle guards, the ninja cut his legs out of the trap. But that limited him from using his skills that made him so famous. In that condition, Sasuke committed suicide and did not allow himself to be caught. Others say that after the final battle at the castle, Sasuke and his companions fled and their fate became unknown.

Sarutobi sasuke - the ninja legend

Real or fiction?

Many claim that Sasuke is a fictional character, created for children's stories published by Tastsukawa-Bunko [立川文庫] between 1911-1923. These tales were very popular with Japanese teenage boys. Such enthusiasm and fame in those days, ended up making the name Sasuke a synonym for ninjas.

Even if he is in fact a fictional character, there were people like him in the story, as we even talked about at the beginning of the article. So let's separate truth and fiction a little. There was even a military commander named Sanada, and it is true that he had his own special group of ninjas. And these made huge conquests in the summer battle at Osaka castle. But the commander's real name was Sanada Nobushige [真田信繁]. 

Several ninjas in the story resemble Sarutobi Sasuke's tales. In some documents about ninjas and ninjutsu from the Edo period, a ninja named Shimotsuge Kizaru is listed. In Japanese, “Ki” [木] can be translated as tree and “Saru” [猿] means monkey. It is very likely that the reason he was named “Kizaru” is that he was quite agile as a monkey. According to reports, Shimotsuge Kizaru was able to jump from one tree to another without shaking the leaves from the branches. Kizaru's real name was Kozuki Sasuke [上月佐助].

So you can't tell with 100% for sure if Sarutobi Sasuke really existed, or if he was just a character created for children's stories, based on a real person. Regardless, the name Sasuke has gained great value and importance, both for ninjas and for Japanese culture.

Sarutobi references Sasuke

  • As already mentioned, a character appeared in Bunko Tachikawa, a famous children's literature between 1911 and 1925;
  • A manga called Sasuke Sarutobi, created by Shigeru Sugiura was published in the 1950s;
  • In the anime Naruto, we have a character named Sasuke Sarutobi, who is the father of the third Hokage;
  • Still in Naruto, we can see several references in the characters Asuma Sarutobi, Hiruzen Sarutobi(this one had a unique summon called Enma the Monkey King, coincidence?), Konohamaru Sarutobi and the most famous Sasuke Uchiha;
  • In the manga and anime Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu - 2 × 2 = Shinobuden, all male ninjas are known as Sasuke;
  • One of the bosses of the game Nioh is a ninja named Sasuke Sarutobi;
  • Other references are found in the films Sanada 10 Braves (2016), Goemon (2009), The Shogun Assassins (1979) among many others;
  • We see our character in manga and anime as The Little Ninja and Brave 10;
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